At the height of its success, Los Angeles’ famous Viper Room nightclub — then owned by Johnny Depp — was the center of young Hollywood. It opened in 1993 on the Sunset Strip, and guests could get their nightly fix of drinks, music, and celebrity excitement. Maybe too much. After River Phoenix died outside in October of ’93, the young club developed a new reputation: one of crime, drugs, fights, and countless drunken nights.
On the same night that River Phoenix died, Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante performed a set while strung out on heroin. He could barely get through it, and the set was a complete buzzkill — that must have been a bad night to be at the club.
“His upper teeth had fallen out,” a witness of the event said. “His legs, arms and ankles were pocked by cigarette burns and his fingernails were bloodied. From that night and on, The Viper Room’s reputation as a messy dungeon-like hangout on Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Strip was set — it was a place anything could happen, where Johnny Law was nowhere to be found.
As all the drunken and murderous mayhem took place at the club, something less deadly (but still illegal) was taking place in its basement. According to an interview on 20/20, Molly Bloom regularly hosted Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, and Tobey Maguire for poker games whose stakes rose to $100,000.
Molly made the mistake of taking a percentage from each game’s winning pot. But doing so automatically made her guilty of organized crime. She then got caught up in money dealings with mobsters, and it wouldn’t take long for the FBI to raid the club and bring all the gambling to a halt.
In 1999, without warning, The Viper Pit’s co-owner Anthony Fox alleged that Johnny Depp conspired with four others to commit fraud using the club’s money! Johnny was prepared to testify against Fox in court, but to everyone’s surprise, Fox suddenly went missing.
Nineteen days later, Anthony’s truck and .38-caliber rifle were found abandoned in Santa Clara, California, on January 6, 2002. His body was never found, and Johnny was accused of killing his friend. In 2004, Johnny cleared his name by giving his share of the club to Anthony Fox’s daughter.
Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor took his reputation to new drunken depths after he was kicked out of a restaurant and stumbled into the Viper Room. He took on a dare from the friend: “I kicked that plate glass window,” he said, “wearing shorts. It shatters and I turn around and there is a cop car sitting right at the red light.”
“I didn’t even try to run,” he continued. “I just walked over and put my hands on the hood. They were very cool about it. They very politely handcuffed me and sat me on the curb right outside the Viper Room. People are coming out and laughing at me. I just start spitting at them and cursing them. The cops throw me in the back of the cop car, and I just passed out in the back seat.”
Now to something not so tragic. In 1995, Pussycat Dolls founder Robin Antin was just assembling her first crew of girls. It was The Viper Room that hosted their first performance, and just like that, Robin became a regular.
After a string of successful performances, Robin’s crew of dancers eventually caught the attention of a record executive who signed them! “It was a new time of burlesque, a new fresh take on it. I was at the forefront of bringing it back,” Robin said.
In ’95, Johnny Depp threw a birthday party for his then-girlfriend Kate Moss. The iconic 21st birthday at The Viper Room might have birthed the fashion phenomenon known as “heroin chic,” which focuses on angles and laid back attitudes. Australian star Jason Donovan was a guest — and he almost died.
He kept snorting coke and nearly died from seizures! “I knew the symptoms all too well,” he wrote in his memoir, “for it was not the first time this had happened to me. My heart was racing, my vision was blurring and I was becoming disorientated. I tried to steady myself but my legs buckled under me and I fell to the floor.” He collapsed and was carried out on a stretcher.
Thousands of struggling artists work in food and nightlife before making it big. But even after the band’s album landed in the top 5 on the Billboard 200, Counting Crows frontman and Viper Room employee Adam Duritz kept working as a bartender at the club. He had good reasons.
“The only people I knew in L.A. were the people who worked at the Viper Room, so that’s where I would hang out. It was fun,” Adam told USA Today. Imagine getting your martini mixed by a guy who was selling out arenas.
Before Johnny Depp bought the club in 1993, it was called The Cotton Club, and it was owned by infamous gangster Mickey Cohen. He ran all mob operations out of the club’s basement (the same one Leo would eventually play poker in). Eventually, he turned the place into a strip club.
After government ordinances effectively shut the club down, Mickey Cohen was arrested for tax evasion (that’s how they get all the gangsters, huh?) and forced to sell the property. In the hands of new ownership, the strip club became a jazz club called the Melody Room.
Ghost Adventures is an American reality show documenting ghosts throughout America, and in 2017, they visited the Viper Room. Ghost hunters recorded ghostly voices, which they played for the woman who’d worked at the club for over a decade, Rita Fiora. She said they sounded like River Phoenix.
She wasn’t surprised. “I’ve had my hair yanked, a hand on my leg,” she said of the club’s ghosts. “Oh yeah, they’re grabby, the guy ghosts. But there’s a chick ghost too, she was texting me once from a dead number. I’d talk out loud to her, and she’d text me a response. She was mad that I couldn’t see her.”
Family and friends of River Phoenix were scattered around The Viper Room club on that tragic night of October 30th, 1993. Flanked by his girlfriend Samantha Mathis and younger siblings Rain and Leaf, known today as Joaquin, River could never have predicted that his life would soon end.
Mathis remembers that they weren’t supposed to stay at the club very long, “But when we arrived he said to me: ‘Oh, there are some people playing music tonight in the club who want me to play with them – that’s OK, right?’”
“I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand,” Mathis continued. “I didn’t see anyone doing drugs but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable — I was in way over my head.” Her instincts proved right.
Mathis’ bad feeling turned quickly into her worst nightmare. After witnessing River getting tossed from the club over a tussle with a stranger, she followed him outside. On the sidewalk, she found River overdosing. She scrambled for help, but it was too late.
During the chaotic scene, Joaquin called 911, Rain attempted CPR on her brother, and people tried to keep the prying eyes of clubgoers away. Ultimately, River was taken to the hospital, where he died from a toxic combination of cocaine and morphine.
The news rippled throughout the country like a shockwave. How could River Phoenix — squeaky clean, planet-loving, vegan, social-activist River Phoenix — have vanished from the world so quickly? There were no easy answers, least of all for the people who knew him best.
His mother, Arlyn Heart, told Esquire magazine about her son’s disconnect to his lofty position, “As River grew, he did become more and more uncomfortable being the poster boy for all good things. He often said he wished he could just be anonymous. But he never was.”
“When he wasn’t a movie star,” Arlyn continued, “he was a missionary. There’s a beauty in that – the man with the cause, the leader – but there’s also a deep loneliness.” While River had many famous friends, it was only his siblings that understood his complicated headspace.
River started acting full-time at ten years old. Over the next 13 years, he landed TV shows, made 15 films, and earned an Academy Award nomination. From his early upbringings to child acting and subsequent success, River didn’t have time to pump the breaks. And being raised in a cult certainly didn’t help things.
It’s no secret that the Phoenix family were members of the Children of God cult, though its effect on River’s early life isn’t much discussed. He was just three years old when his parents moved the family to Caracas, Venezuela, to evangelize on the cult’s behalf.
From hippie upbringings to cult members, life for the Phoenixes only became more out of the ordinary. Arlyn and her husband, John, eventually fled with their children back to the states, and after a few years, they landed in Los Angeles.
Soon after, the Phoenix kids began performing. River and Rain sang on the street for money, landing gigs together on TV shows. On paper, it sounds fairly chaotic, but Rain has a different view of those years with her siblings.
“We were all close. There was a lot of laughter in our group. Laughing. That’s what I think of when I think of us as children, ” Rain told The Guardian. The uniqueness of their family free-spirits fledged a tight-knit bond between the Phoenix kids.
In 1987, a 13-year-old Joaquin once told tv crew that filmed them at home, “We kinda miss [having a normal childhood] sometimes, missing our friends, but when we go someplace we get to meet other people. But then you have to say goodbye to them.”
While Rain’s very careful about what she says about her family, she’s started opening up about River: “There is a part of River that I carry in me,” she said. “This extreme left-of-centre rebelliousness, thinking outside the box, doing whatever you have to do to let your soul speak.”
When asked about the ease of getting caught up in the fog and mirrors of Hollywood celebrity, River famously retorted, “Mmm, not for me, it isn’t.” Fame was never on his radar as something he was remotely comfortable with.
In fact, River was notorious for diverting most interviews to the cause nearest to his heart — environmentalism. Even Samantha Mathis said he only wanted to make one more movie to fund his littlest sister’s education.
At one point, River grew so tired of dealings with the press and their negative insinuations about his parents and childhood, that he told them that he lost his virginity at four years old. Joaquin later confirmed his brother only said that as a frustrated joke.
Those same frustrations haunt the rest of the Phoenixes, primarily Joaquin. In recent years, he’s started to speak about his late brother, though only after having been peppered with stinging personal questions about it since age 19.
Now the most famed Phoenix, Joaquin has figured out how to balance his staunch values — the same veganism, environmentalist, rebellious anti establishment sensibility — while existing as a A-list star. His strategy? He’s extremely private.
Though Joaquin’s private life remained a mystery, his film career was exploding. Her, Walk the Line, and Gladiator were only a few of the many movies that established Joaquin as one of the biggest talents of his generation.
Until early 2020, Joaquin hadn’t done a major interview in years. But there was a ton of Oscar buzz around him because of Joker, so he agreed to have a chat with Anderson Cooper.
Anderson, like Joaquin, lost his brother at a young age. Carter Vanderbilt died by suicide in 1988. In the interview, Anderson talked to Joaquin about how he struggled with his grief and mourning his brother. Joaquin started feeling more comfortable with Anderson after learning about the host’s connection.
From there, he began to open up: “You had said that, you know, for years you’d find it difficult to say your brother’s name, or to just talk about him,” he said. “I really identify.” This would definitely be a strong reason to not want to talk publicly about your brother.
Joaquin never talked about River publicly, but he chose to remember him in his own personal ways. He mentioned to Anderson that he always feels his brother’s presence in his work. He thinks there’s a connection to River in all of his movies.
Joaquin had another opportunity to honor his brother’s impact when he won his Oscar for Best Actor. as Arthur Fleck in The Joker. The actor ended his speech, “When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said, ‘Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.’”